Walking High Steel
Mohawk Ironworkers at the Twin Towers

Mohawk iron working began in the 1880s when the Dominion Bridge Company began a bridge from the Kahnawake reserve across the St. Lawrence River to Montreal. Employees of the company wrote: "We would employ these Indians as ordinary day laborers. They were dissatisfied with this arrangement and would come out on the bridge itself every chance they got. It became apparent to all concerned that these Indians were very odd in that they did not have any fear of heights … We picked out some and gave them a little training, and it turned out that putting riveting tools in their hands was like putting ham with eggs."

The Kahnawake Lacrosse team in 1907, most were killed when the Quebec Bridge located behind them collapsed. photo courtesy of Kanien’kehaka Onkawawen:na Raotitiohkwa
By 1907 there were 70 skilled ironworkers from Kahnawake. Many of these men had been hired to set iron on the Quebec Bridge, which was soon to be the largest cantilevered bridge in the world. Just before quitting time on August 29 the bridge's structure failed and the rivets began to pop. The bridge collapsed into the river below. Thirty three Mohawk men lost their lives. The women of the community gathered to await the names of those lost and made a declaration that never again would a large group of Mohawk men work together on the same job. Two steel crosses, one at each entrance to Kahnawake, honor Mohawk ironworkers killed on the job.

Joe Regis (Mohawk, Kahnawake) and an unidentified ironworker erecting the Chase Manhattan Bank Building in New York, ca. 1960.
photo courtesy of Bethlehem Steel
The Empire State Building, The Chrysler Building, George Washington Bridge, The World Trade Center. For 120 years, six generations of Mohawk Indian ironworkers, known for their ability to work high steel, have helped shape New York City’s skyline.

Each week, hundreds of Mohawks have commuted to Manhattan from their reserves in Canada framing the city’s skyscrapers and bridges. In September 2001, after the fall of the Trade Towers, the sons and nephews of these men returned to the site to dismantle what their elders had helped to build.

Unidentified Mohawk ironworker on the World Trade Center, early 1970's

Mohawk History

The Iroquois, a confederacy comprised of six nations—one of which is the Mohawks—identify themselves as Hodinoso:ni or “they build longhouses.” The term literally describes the traditional housing of the Iroquois. The term also refers to the Iroquoian political structure where, as in a longhouse, if one piece is removed the structure cannot stand.


Additional Material

» Construction activity at the WTC site in 1970.

» Progress at the WTC site through 1970.

» Handsignals:

"It’s the little man-made mistakes that we try to watch. You’re always trying to be conscious and communicating well. Communication is everything. Me and my partner Andy work together a lot, and we don’t always even have to talk to each other… It’s hand signals and watching each other."
—Brad Bonaparte

» "Topping out" card given to ironworkers upon completion of the A tower.
courtesy of Peter Stacey
» Map of the Mohawk communities Akwesasne and Kahnawake.

» Photographs from the WTC constuction

Quotes from this story

"I was young at the time, the height didn’t bother me. Once they put me out on the 45th floor. They tied a rope around me, and they just lowered me over the side, and I would shoot the bolts in from the outside so they could put the nuts and washers from the inside. It was a little high over the side—45 floors just with a line but I thought maybe that’s what they always do."

—Randy Horne, talking about the WTC.

"That's the thing I want for my kids the most, to speak Mohawk. I was only home weekends, so there wasn’t much time. Put the iron up. That was our life. My father told me a long time ago, try to talk Mohawk a little bit. That’s our language, try to keep it, don’t lose it."

—Bill O’Hara Oakes

"My mother's brother was a great ironworker. Her uncles, her father, my grandfather Junogate Scott, worked on the Empire State Building. My uncle worked in Brazil, in Chile, in France, he was on the San Francisco Bay Bridge. Weekends when they came home all they talked about was the jobs they was on, what they were doing, where they were traveling. It was great. Especially when you started working yourself. You could almost do the job, you were talking so much about it when you were a kid. You knew what the hell to do, no one really had to tell you."

—Peter LaFleur

"Once in a while you get stuff where you step back and—aye. You get a second thought about your next step. Especially when the wind starts. Because when you're walking a girder or anything the wind is blowing, say from the north to the nouth. You're leaning north. All of a sudden the wind stops, say a gust of wind or something like that. Now you're leaning into it, can you imagine? It stops, and you keep on going."

—Walter Beauvais

"My son fell off, I think he was up 27 stories, but he was tied off. They didn’t tell me till two weeks later. When the creator says you are going, you go. I have to think that way. If I was thinking, oh, my sons are up there, they’re going to get killed, a mother would go crazy. So I just put it out of my head. That is what they wanted to do. That isn’t what I wanted them to do, but seeing their father and grandfather do that, that’s what they want. They feel better up there than they do on the ground."


"Tobacco burning means that you're communicating with the creator and giving thanks to the creator. You're burning tobacco and it rises up and the creator knows that you're speaking to him truthfully and honestly and you're being thankful. So we always carry tobacco—it's just a little bit of medicine to help you. We always have it close by."

—Brad Bonaparte

"I remember fog really socking that whole place in. We got up on the work floor, the Kangaroo cranes stood at least three floors above that. You couldn’t see it, couldn’t see anything. And then you’d hear ice crashing down on the floors below. So we went back down and we reported in the office that it was too dangerous to work. That was the last time I saw the Trade Center. But that 110th floor was up."

—Peter Stacey

Radio Broadcast

Produced by: Jamie York and The Kitchen Sisters
(Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva).
Mixed by Jim McKee at Earwax Productions.

Special thanks to Lynne Beauvais, Kanatakta, K103 Kahnawake, Kanien'kehaka Onkwawen:na Raotitiohkwa, National Museum of the American Indian, Elinoar Astrinsky, Elana Berkowitz, City Lore, Tony Field, Andy Lanset, Sound Portraits, Jeffrey Jay Foxx, Mike Swamp, Laura Folger, Paula Mauro, L.B. Thompson & Picture Projects.
Meet the people

Randy Horne working on the construction of the WTC and today.
(Photos courtesy of Kanien’kehaka Onkawen:na Raotitiohkwa and the National Film Board of Canada)

Peter LaFleur in downtown Brooklyn, 1969
(photo courtesy of Peter LaFleur)

Walter Beauvais on the World Trade Center,
(photo courtesy of Peter “Doc” Alfred)

Brad Bonaparte and his partner Andy Jacobs, (photo courtesy of Jeffrey Jay Foxx)

Peter Stacey, far right, and two friends on the World Trade Center.
(photo courtesy of Peter Stacey)